Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?

What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?

And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!

Advertisements

About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on March 26, 2014, in George MacDonald, Humor, Inspiration, Language, Lantern Hollow Press, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Words, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. *clears throat* I’ll rap your knuckles with a ruler if you call “ain’t” a travesty again. It is a conjunction with a lineage that goes back several hundred years, at least, and was used by highly educated men and women as well as the uneducated. It is pervasive because it is functional, succinct, and even has a nice ring to it (yes, that last bit is subjective) ;P

    Soap-box time! 😀
    So, prejudice against regional dialects is pervasive throughout humanity, but I think it is one of our most block-headed ideas. It crops up as just one more way to categorize and despise large portions of humanity. Yes, standardized language and correctness are useful, but dismissing consistent speech-patterns that do not conform to the ‘standard’ as incorrect is rather arrogant. Despising them is nothing short of a prejudice.

    I’m speaking as someone who was raised to be a grammar-snob. I used to cringe at phrases like “that ain’t nothing” or “What you want?”

    The more I have learned about grammar and language, the more I’ve been bled of my prejudices. For all its usefulness (and I do support teaching it), our standard grammar is derived from colloquial usage and occasional arbitrary decisions. Why, for instance, do older standards counsel against ending sentences with prepositions? Because ending a sentence with a preposition is incorrect in Latin. It is an issue of style over meaning.

    So I guess my point is this: Standard grammar is very useful, and should be taught and maintained. It is not, however, more “correct” than colloquial patterns of speech and, as such, should not be used as a measuring-stick against them. I would not use “ain’t” or a double-negative in a formal letter or an essay, but I’ll speak them when appropriate and use them in informal writing in what is, for my regional dialect, a correct form. Because, for the record, a double negative is a negative. It is consistent, and in the dialects that use it, never means a positive. I ain’t never gonna back down from that, neither. 😉

    As a side-note, I agree with you that there is still such a thing as incorrect grammar, such as confusing their, there and they’re. That is different from colloquial patterns that have consistent form and meaning.

    Aaaaand dismounting soap box. Sorry ’bout that. I rant because I care and because I’m talking to people who care, too.

    Aside from that blip, I love this post! For one thing, you quoted George MacDonald, which, as you probably know by now, always makes me smile.
    Also, I agree that rich and creative word-use has its place in our writing and that the living nature of our language is a fascinating thing.

    Some battles will be lost, I fear. “Literally” is mostly dead already, as is “awesome.” I grieve when I see words turned into ghosts. But having and using broad and interesting vocabularies can go a long way to broadening the word-richness of others. Thank you for posting this! And I am a little sorry for ranting at you. Hopefully, you know I like you. 🙂

    • Hehe, you may rap away at my knuckles, but I will never, ever be a fan of “ain’t”. (Or double negatives for that matter. I find them confusing and if a manner of speaking is confusing, I frown heavily upon it) Perhaps it’s the fact that it cannot be broken down into any two words: am not? is not? are not? Perhaps the fact that it sounds like slurring to me. Perhaps the fact that it is utterly unacceptable in academic writing, even beyond the general frowning upon of contractions in truly good writing has conditioned me to dislike it. Probably all of the above. Ironically, it is actually in the Oxford English Dictionary now, so I am the one rejecting standardized English by saying it’s not a real word.

      (Note – I’ve lived in Virginia all my life and southern Virginia for nearly ten years. It may not be “true” South to many, but it was South enough for Robert E Lee, so I’m not speaking as a cut and dried northerner here)

      Suffice to say, I know that in my heart of hearts and soul of souls, I have never adopted it as an acceptable contraction, and I suspect I never will. The good news is that all of my lovely southern friends can make free use of it to torment me whenever they feel that I’m getting too snuffy. So I accept your ruler rap with pride. 🙂

      Also, George Macdonald is incredible and I will never tire of rereading passages of Phantastes to make me feel as close to stepping into an otherworld as I will probably ever get.

      Also, I am thinking about mounting a serious counteroffensive against the misusers of “literally” and “awesome” and the like, and I think we just need to be more assertive. Victory can be ours!

      (Glad you liked my post!)

      • Oh, you are more than welcome to dislike it without fearing retribution. I hate the word “lampoon.” It is calling it a travesty that will incite me to mild violence.
        I think “ain’t” is a kind of griffin, a creature formed from combined contractions in order to avoid awkwardness like “amn’t” and “Isn’t” (which is correct but sounds awkward to me).
        Shakespeare and Mark Twain are two among many truly good writers who use lots of contractions. It really depends on what is being written, aye?

        Ah, I’m a Tennessean. If anything, I think we’re considered less southern than Virginia, at least by most of the Deep South. The thing is, though, that dialects are everywhere. A perfectly correct Londoner can tell me to “queue up” and unless I understand his dialect, his speech will be unclear to me. Double negatives are certainly unclear to those who aren’t used to them, which is the same as saying that the words “ham” and “bacon” mean different things in different places in the U.S. and in other English-speaking countries. …it’s brain-hurting, really. And that is why standard English is important to know: It’s the only effective way to bridge the dialect gaps.

        At the same time, I hate the idea of all colloquial forms dying out for the same reasons you cite in your post. Our language is alive and varied, and I want it to stay that way. If we didn’t have a rich history of dialects, we would have a much poorer language. Now I’m probably preaching to the choir…

        You think we can reverse the process? I hope you are right. Organizing would probably help. Society for the Reversal of Vocabulary Decay? SRVD isn’t a very good acronym, though.

        Thank you for writing it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: